In Appalachia, the coal industry is in collapse, but the mountains aren’t coming back
In Appalachia, explosions have leveled the mountaintops into perfect race tracks for Ryan Hensley’s all-terrain vehicle (ATV). At least, that’s how the 14-year-old sees the barren expanses of dirt that stretch for miles atop the hills surrounding his home in the former coal town of Whitesville, W.Va.
“They’re going to blast that one next,” he says, pointing to a peak in the distance. He’s referring to a process known as “mountaintop removal,” in which coal companies use explosives to blast away hundreds of feet of rock in order to unearth underground seams of coal.
“And then it’ll be just blank space,” he adds. “Like the Taylor Swift song.”
Skinny and shirtless, Hensley looks no more than 11 or 12. His ribs and collarbones protrude from his taut skin. Dipping tobacco is tucked into his right cheek. He has a head of cropped blond curls that jog some memory of mine, but I can’t quite figure out what it is. He’s pointing at a peak named Coal River Mountain. These days, though, it’s known to activists here as “the Last Mountain,” as it’s the only ridgeline in this area that’s still largely intact.
We continue picking our way along a path on topless Kayford “Mountain,” a few miles from Hensley’s hometown (population 514, according to the 2010 census), as he resumes chronicling his adventures on ATVs. Nearby is the Seng Creek mine, still semi-active and one of Hensley’s favorite racing spots. Active mines are always the best race tracks, he assures me, since you get the added thrill of outrunning security guards and watching explosions, which sound, he tells me, like hundreds of dump trucks emptying their loads all at once.
As we walk, we’re careful to step over crevices known as “mine cracks” — deep narrow drops into the earth most often formed by the caving in of old underground mines. Hensley stops to peer into one crack filled with broken Bud Lite bottles and I joke that it leads straight through to China.
But Hensley knows better. At his young age, he’s already an expert on everything about mountaintop removal: how companies blast the peaks with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil — the same chemical combination that Timothy McVeigh used to detonate the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. He knows that the process fills the air with toxic coal dust, benzene, and carbon monoxide, while contaminating nearby streams with arsenic.
However, Hensley doesn’t know and can hardly imagine what this region — his home — was like before the peaks were removed. “I wasn’t alive when those mountains were there,” he observes a few hours later. And even though the industry in West Virginia is in the grips of an unprecedented collapse that threatens to dethrone King Coal once and for all, this 14-year-old and all the other children growing up in the shadow of these “blank spaces” will never see the decapitated peaks return to thickly forested mountaintops.
The king is dead
In the first half of this year, at least six domestic coal companies filed for bankruptcy. In February, West Virginia’s Covington Coal fell, followed by Xinergy and Grass Creek Coal in April, Patriot and Birmingham Coal & Coke in May, and A&M Coal in June. In August came the biggest announcement of all: the $10-billion coal giant Alpha Natural Resources had entered the bankruptcy sweepstakes, too.
Only four years earlier, Alpha had secured its position as one of the world’s largest coal outfits by purchasing the Appalachian company Massey Energy for $7 billion and expanding its operations to 60 mines, many in Appalachia. But its reign would prove short-lived. The price of coal has been plummeting as utility companies shift to significantly cheaper shale gas, extracted through the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to produce power. This April, for the first time since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began collecting data in 1973, gas surpassed coal as the nation’s No. 1 producer of energy.
By late July, the New York Stock Exchange announced that it had suspended trading of Alpha Natural Resources’ stock because it was worth next to nothing.
In August, the inevitable occurred. Alpha submitted a bankruptcy filing which read in part: “The unprecedented changes facing the coal industry run deep and are occurring at a frenetic and unpredictable pace … The U.S. coal industry as currently structured is unsustainable.”
By now, the funeral was underway and the first obituaries were appearing. Headlines in various papers not only announced Alpha’s demise, but offered autopsies for the entire industry. As the New York Times put it in its headline three days after the filing: “King Coal, Long Besieged, Is Deposed by the Market.”
Causes of death: the explosion of cheap natural gas, the rising costs of new environmental and worker safety regulations, and a simple geological reality — the industry has already mined out the majority of all economically recoverable coal.
This energy version of regime change had been long in the making. The coalfields are filled with now-abandoned company towns, where the industry once employed hundreds of thousands of men to work in underground mines. The extraction process generated massive wealth, at least for the mine owners. In the late 1880s, Bramwell, West Virginia, was reputedly home to the highest concentration of millionaires per capita of any town in the United States. Today, its high school still boasts of that legacy through its teams’ nickname: the Bramwell Millionaires.
In the second half of the 20th century, many of those towns all but evaporated as the industry turned to strip mining, a mechanized process that uses heavy machinery rather than muscle power to carve away rock and expose seams of coal running along hillsides. The town of Kayford, which sits at the base of its namesake mountain, is one such example. Once a company town for men employed in the mines, its main road is now lined only with poplars, sycamores, and basswood, a few poured-concrete foundations, and a crumbling single-story brick wall. The town’s last building is said to have burned down toward the end of the 1970s.
The former town is still, however, home to an active strip mine called Alpha’s Republic #1, which employs few people but has managed to extract a considerable amount of coal. In 2012, organizers with the climate justice group Mountain Justice formed a human blockade to shut down work traffic going in and out of the site. It was just one of dozens and dozens of blockades, “tree-sits,” and other direct actions Mountain Justice has executed as part of a decade-long campaign, which has won regulatory improvements to reduce water contamination, shielded schools in the coalfields from the worst health impacts of mining, moderated flooding caused by that mining, and demanded the industry do more to replant trees and grasses on old mine sites. That campaign also helped inspire almost all the major environmental activism in the nation today — from the university divestment movement to tree sits in Texas to block the Keystone XL pipeline to the arrest this month of people seeking to halt the construction of the first commercial tar-sands mine in this country.
In many ways, however, Mountain Justice’s protests were among the least extreme in the state’s long history of organizing. Drive farther up the mountain and you’ll find concrete bunkers built by hired guns from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency sent in to quell a powerful miner’s strike in 1912-1913. Less than 10 years later, as many as 10,000 armed miners from West Virginia would launch the largest labor uprising in the nation’s history.
The mountains at the center of the world
Even higher up the mountain, past the bunkers, lies Stanley Heirs Park, a 50-acre swath of land surrounded by the final stage of coal extraction: mountaintop removal.
In the 1970s, as more and more of the readily available coal was extracted from West Virginia’s underground mines and ridge lines, companies decided to take strip mining to its logical conclusion: They would simply blast away the entire tops of mountains to get at the remaining coal. The results are visible in the flattened, barren mines that surround the park, including the Seng Creek mine where Ryan Hensley likes to ride his ATV.
Hensley and dozens of others converged here for an annual Fourth of July celebration, an event hosted by the family of the late Larry Gibson, a prominent organizer against mountaintop removal. His family has lived here on Kayford Mountain since the late 1700s and this section alone has remained unblasted because Gibson turned the family plot into a land trust in order to fend off the industry.
Before his death in 2012, Gibson was much hated in the area for taking on the coal companies, so his friends and neighbors tell me as we share fried chicken and Budweiser. His house was riddled with bullets. His dogs were poisoned or shot. But he succeeded in protecting at least his small plot of land from the explosives. Now, as his family points out, the land that used to lie in the shadow of surrounding taller peaks has become, after 30 years of mountaintop removal, the highest site in the area.
Few know more about the impact of the mining industry than Elise Keaton, a 30-something native West Virginian with the enthusiastic, commanding voice of a camp counselor. Years ago, she did what many of the state’s residents do if they can: she left. She earned a law degree in Texas and later helped with disaster relief in post-Katrina New Orleans.
“But being from West Virginia is like having a fishhook in your heart,” she tells me. So she returned and, following Gibson’s death, took over the role of educating newcomers about Kayford. Standing at the edge of the Seng Creek mine, owned by the now bankrupt coal company Patriot, Keaton explains that the surrounding mountain peaks have been reduced by at least 400 feet, if not more. The removed earth — known in industry parlance as the “overburden” — was dumped into the nearby valleys, where it covered streams, reducing the region’s fresh water supply.
Before coal companies came along, Appalachia had been “burdened” by these mountains for more than 400 million years. They were formed by the same collision of tectonic plates that produced the single supercontinent Pangea. The Appalachian mountain range then lay at the heart of the world’s only unified landmass.
Today, the unblasted sections of West Virginia’s mountains are blanketed by a temperate forest so diverse that researchers are still discovering new species, including a reddish-orange crayfish that was plucked out of the water in 2013 and dubbed Cambarus hatfieldi — a Latin play on the name of the famed West Virginia family, the Hatfields, who feuded with their neighbors across the river in Kentucky, the McCoys.
Keaton recently invited a forest expert to visit Kayford Mountain and survey the decommissioned mines. The coal companies have made only the most meager efforts to reclaim this devastated land by planting quick-growth pine trees, black locust, grass seed, and other plants that can live with high levels of acids in the soil. Keaton wanted to know how long it would take for these stands of identical pines to be transformed into a diverse rainforest, so she took the expert to one of the ridges and asked him when the real forest would grow back.
“And he said,” Elise recalled, “‘About 100 million years.’”
Before his death, Gibson dubbed the entrance to the Seng Creek mine “Hell’s Gate,” since for many years this site looked out across a vast expanse of gray broken only by the movements of massive machines and those explosions, which occurred every day of the year. A writer for Smithsonian Magazinewho visited Kayford in 2009, while this mine was still being blasted frequently, wrote that “entering a mountaintop site is like crossing into a war zone.”
Now, few are the explosions at Seng Creek, but the nothingness remains.
There’s almost no sound down in the mine itself except for the muffled rush of the wind unshielded by trees. Heaps of sandstone and fragmented shale rock stretch for what looks like miles. Much of the surface dirt has been packed down into undulating wide roads by the giant wheels of coal trucks. Most of the birds long ago left this desolate spot, although you can hear the occasional singing of meadowlarks from nearby reclamation sites. (“We’ve never had meadow larks here before,” Keaton later tells me, as she stands on a nearby ridge overlooking a decommissioned mine seeded with grass. “But this is more like a meadow now.”)
I walk to the far edge of the mine, sit down, and peer into some of the cylindrical holes, about 11 inches in diameter, that workers once drilled into the shale rock as places to pack full of ammonium nitrate. I recall what one of the festival’s musicians said about coal — that he liked to think of it as old sunlight trapped inside rocks as long decomposed organic matter. Maybe it would be simpler, he added, just to use new sunlight, as the weekend’s solar-powered event was, in fact, doing.
Finally, hours later, I conclude that there is very little else to be written, at least by me, at the edge of a mountaintop that’s been transformed into blank, dead space. After all, I’m new to West Virginia, which gives me something in common with Ryan Hensley: I never saw the mountains here, either. And I never will.
The life that’s left
This state’s longest-serving governor once famously asked: “Why does everything bad happen to West Virginia?”
His question gibed well with the sense I ran into that the state’s history is a tragic one and that the coal industry’s collapse is its grim final act. Indeed, it’s unclear just what West Virginia’s future will hold. Coal has been the region’s mono-industry for so long that it’s hard to imagine anything else. Elise Keaton points out that the region’s rich coalfields were a major part of the reason President Abraham Lincoln approved a controversial Act of Congress in 1863 to carve out West Virginia as a new state. It was one of only two states created in the midst of the Civil War and even some of Lincoln’s advisors deemed the move unconstitutional. But annexing the region was militarily expedient. It gave the north all those rich coalfields and the prized Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which hauled Union soldiers south to the front lines and Appalachian coal north from Charleston to stations in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.
In other words, West Virginia was created, as Keaton puts it, as a resource colony.
Perhaps, in the end, the death of coal will spell not doom but liberation for the state, freeing it from the energy needs of the rest of the nation. These days, as the coal industry crumbles, West Virginians are rallying in support of what’s being called “transition work” — the building, that is, of a new economy based on agriculture, local arts, wineries, and the like.
Indeed, if West Virginia is able to build these alternative economies, if the state is able to do more than simply pivot from being a coal colony to becoming a shale gas supplier, it will provide evidence that any region can be transformed as the planet’s industrialized nations hurtle into a post-fossil fuel future, kicking and screaming every step of the way.
Such a transition will require not only building anew, but also healing old wounds.
Hours later, Hensley begins pleading for one more expedition in Stanley Heirs Park, so we set off for Hell’s Gate with a handful of others. As we walk, I suddenly realize just whom his cropped blond hair, which has felt so eerily familiar, brought to mind: a young worker I met in North Dakota’s fracking fields in the summer of 2014, shortly before he was beaten to death outside a bar. In that moment of recognition, I find myself pleased that Hensley will have, at best, a slim chance of finding a coal job when he’s older, but then I begin to worry about where the need for work will carry him if new industries haven’t sprung up in time.
Another member of our group is Charles Lee Williams, a former miner who lives a few miles away. Forty-six years old, Williams has a round head and small, deep-set blue eyes. He’s a man who knows about death in the coalfields better than most. He worked for coal giant Massey Energy until 2010, when a series of explosions ripped through subterranean tunnels at his worksite killing 29 of his co-workers — and nearly getting him, too. The force of the blasts, he tells me, was so powerful that it felt as if his skull were being sucked out of his head.
Now, Williams spends most nights dreaming of the ghosts of those men. He sought treatment once for the resulting PTSD, but the pills prescribed for him only seemed to make the nightmares worse. In them, he tells me, his former co-workers usually appear headless.
After we’ve returned from Hell’s Gate, Williams confesses that it’s his first time surveying a mountaintop removal site from above — despite living so close to mines that the explosions sometimes shake his house.
“It feels like there’s nothing alive left over there,” he says. Then he pauses and adds, “That’s what it feels like in the mornings, too. That there ain’t no life left in me, neither.”
Get Grist in your inbox